Domesticity Nouveau

Monday, October 31, 2011

Sugar-free Canadian Bacon

Friends of mine who have hearts in Canada will probably argue that this is not true Canadian Bacon, which I hear is rolled in corn/pea meal and quite different from the American thoughts on Canadian Bacon.  Some may argue that this is more like ham.  Some may say this is spot on.  Others may debate smoking the cured meat or leaving it to just a simple low and slow oven roast.  Regardless, this is some tasty tasty meat!!

Curing your own meat at home sounds intimidating to some people, but if it wasn’t a lazy activity, I promise I wouldn’t be doing it.  Charcuterie is the fancy term for curing meat, and it is also the title of a FANTASTIC book by Michael Ruhlman.  If you are at all interested in meat preservation, sausage making, and many other gourmet meat treats I can’t suggest this book highly enough!

Sweetener is a necessary part of many cured meat products because it balances the extreme saltiness needed for preservation of meat.  I looked everywhere for sugar-free bacon and sugar-free Canadian bacon but couldn’t find it; so of course, I figured it out on my own.   Stevia powder works great for this!  I am wary of artificial sweeteners.  There is a lot of research out there and it is conflicting, so we just avoid them when possible.  Also, I was unsure if there would be any bizarre chemical reactions between the sodium nitrite essential to the curing process and the chemicals in the artificial sweeteners.

While sugar-free was my main concern, many more people flip their lids over nitrites and nitrates.  There is a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to this subject.  Nitrites are essential for making that cured meat flavor, pink color and keeping meat safely preserved (botulism is no fun!).  Unfortunately, they have an undeserved bad reputation.  “Spinach, beets, radishes, celery, and cabbages are among the vegetables that generally contain very high concentrations of nitrates (J. Food Sci., 52:1632). The nitrate content of vegetables is affected by maturity, soil conditions, fertilizer, variety, etc. It has been estimated that 10 percent of the human exposure to nitrite in the digestive tract comes from cured meats and 90 percent comes from vegetables and other sources.  Did you get that?  Vegetables, not cured meat, are the main source of nitrates in our diet.

“Uncured” bacon that you see in the market falls into a marketing & USDA labeling gray zone.  Because sodium nitrate/nitrite is not directly added to the process it cannot be labeled as a cured meat.  The fact that naturally occurring nitrates in vegetables are used as the curing medium is quietly dismissed since it allows marketing folks to create an illusion of a healthier product and charge more.  Applegate Farms is one of the companies that is more honest about the nitrite/nitrate issue and has an excellent FAQ explaining the differences.

Long before you could go to to order your sodium nitrite, saltpeter (AKA potassium nitrite) was used for the curing process.  Saltpeter is also an ingredient in fireworks and gun powder and was traditionally created through a process that involves mixing urine (or manure), straw and wood ash.  Even though I am very much a DIY gal, I don’t see myself harvesting urine to make saltpeter anytime soon. 

Modern meat curing relies on sodium nitrite, which also goes by the names of Instacure #1, Prague Powder #1, DQ Cure #1, DC Curing Salt, Pink Salt and a few other names.  It is dyed pink so as to avoid any accidental confusion with regular salt (it is the nitrite, not the dye that gives cured meat its recognizable pink color).  It is mainly made up of salt as a carrier for the small amount of nitrite.  It is available from many sources:  Amazon, Butcher and Packer, The Meadow and a variety of other places.  Prices are all over the board for the same product, shop smartly!

Much more can be written about curing meat and nitrates, but I’m more interested in getting to the actual simplicity of the recipe instead of the complexity of the science and health arguments.  If you are interested, you can read more here:
Nitrite in Meat
Meat Curing Safety Issues
The No Nitrites Added Hoax
REPORT 9 OF THE COUNCIL ON SCIENTIFIC AFFAIRS (A-04), Labeling of Nitrite Content of Processed Foods

Sugar-free Canadian Bacon


8-10 pound whole pork loin
1 gallon of water
12 oz Salt
1.5 oz Prague Powder #1
1.5 tsp Pure Stevia Powder
8 Bay leaves
1/4 cup dried rubbed sage
1 Tbsp dried thyme
1 Tbsp black peppercorns

Combine all but pork in a large pot over high heat until dissolved, and then chill completely.  Submerge pork loin fully in brine for 48 hours.  Remove from brine, rinse and dry thoroughly.  Allow to rest on rack in fridge 12-24 hours, uncovered.  Hot smoke and/or low roast in 200 to 250 degree oven until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 145 degrees.  Refrigerate completed pork up to 2 weeks, or portion as desired and freeze for future use.

Certainly you have questions!

Do I need to make 10 pounds!?
You can easily cut this recipe in half or a quarter.  I prefer to go all out with ten pounds since that is the size of one whole loin, it freezes well and it is just as much work to make 10 pounds as 2 pounds.  Make sure to get a pork loin that is just meat, not something that has been infused with a solution.  I haven’t tried this recipe with pork tenderloin, but considering that the tenderloin is part of the whole loin, it should work just fine.  You will need to cut a whole loin into 3-4 pieces to be able to fit into a container with brine.

How many cups is 1 gallon of water?
16 cups is one gallon.  When dissolving the salts in the water, you can speed the chilling process by using only 1/2 the water and adding in the remaining water (in the form of ice or cold water) once the salts are dissolved.  It isn’t necessary to bring the brine to a full boil, just heat and stir until everything is dissolved.  I start the brine in the morning and let it cool to room temperature by the afternoon.  Once at room temperature, I stick it in the fridge to cool even further.  The key is that you don’t want to be putting raw meat into hot brine.  Once it is cool by evening, I then submerge the loin in the brine.  This sets me up for the time schedule to take the pork out in a couple of nights for an overnight drying in the fridge and then to start smoking the next morning. 

What size pot do I use?
You need one that will hold all your brine and all your pork loin.  I use an 8 quart stock pot which is just about perfect.  Depending on the size of the pork loin, I might need to pour off a small amount of the brine, just so it isn’t filled to the brim and spilling as I move it to the fridge.  Make sure to use a non-reactive container, glass or stainless steel is best, cast iron and aluminum are not for this project.

Do I have to weigh the salt?
Yes.  Different grinds of salt, when measured by volume, have different weights, i.e. light and fluffy kosher salt vs super-fine salt.  The only way to assure that you have a safe amount of salt in your brine is to weigh it.  You can use whatever salt you would like, provided it has no fillers or anti-caking agents or other additives.  Diamond brand Kosher Flake Salt or Morton’s Canning and Pickling Salt are two that I have used with great results.  The key is that the only ingredient should be salt.  Save your fancy sea salts and finishing salts for another project.
I don’t like sage, can I use another herb?
Sure, you can use whatever seasonings you like.  The part you can’t mess around with is the water, salt and curing salt ratio.  Here’s a version of Canadian Bacon from Michael Ruhlman’s blog.  The sweetener and flavorings are adjustable to personal preferences.  Maybe you want to throw in some hot peppers or orange zest, go crazy, it’s your project!

I don’t care if it is sugar-free, how much sugar would I use?
If the stevia powder isn’t for you, feel free to use whatever sweetener you would like to the equivalent of 1 cup sugar.  Brown sugar, white sugar, demura sugar, honey, agave syrup, maple syrup... totally up to you!  I use Kal Brand Pure Stevia Powder, but I’m sure there are others out there.  Be cautious with some of the supermarket stevia blends, many have ingredients that might not work well in a brine.  Sweetener, whatever you use, balances the large amount of salt in cured meats.  Since it isn’t essential to the chemical preservation, which comes from the salt and curing salt, you can adjust this to personal taste.

My pork loin wants to float, how do I keep it submerged in the brine?
I put my pot of brine in the sink before adding the pork loin, just to avoid any potential overflows on the kitchen counter.  To keep the meat submerged, I place a salad plate on top which offers enough weight to keep the meat under.  Depending on the size of the loin and how it is arranged in the pot, I might adjust the position of the pork pieces half way through the soaking process.  It probably isn’t necessary, but it makes me content to play with my project and assure that all parts get a good exposure to the brine.

Why do I rinse and dry and let sit in the fridge uncovered?

You’ll need to rinse your pork to get all the bits of herbs that stuck to it off.  This is more for appearance sake than for flavor.  Drying is important for the same reason you let it sit in the fridge uncovered:  you want to develop a pellicle.  Pellicle is a tacky (not as in bad fashion choices, but sticky) surface on meat that acts like smoke glue.  If you put wet meat into a smoker, the smoke won’t adhere as well and your flavor won’t be as rich and deep.  The sticky surface that comes from 12-24 hours of air drying in the fridge gives the smoke something to cling to.

The time scheduling is confusing me, how do I calculate it?

Day 1 morning:  make brine and allow to cool at room temperature
Day 1 afternoon:  move room temperature brine to fridge to chill
Day 1 evening:  submerge pork loin in brine
Day 2:  patience and dreams of porky goodness
Day 3 evening:  remove from brine and place on rack to develop pellicle
Day 4 morning, afternoon or evening: smoke and/or roast 
If you want to finish on a Saturday, begin on Wednesday morning.  Yes, this takes many days, but the steps themselves take about 5 minutes each and the rest of your time can be spent napping.

How long does the smoking/roasting process take?
Several hours.  It is hard to say beyond that because all smokers and ovens are different.  In my smoker it takes about 2-3 hours for a pan of chips and then another 2-3 hours in the oven (200 to 250 degrees) for the meat to reach 145 degrees internally.  If you aren’t smoking and are just roasting in the oven, I would think 3-4 hours.  Start checking your temperature when you pull from the smoker, or about 2 hours into roasting.

How much smoke and what flavor wood chips?
That’s a personal preference.  The first time I made this recipe I used 2 pans of apple wood chips and it was a bit too smoky, closer in flavor to streaky bacon than Canadian bacon.  I now use one pan of chips, which goes for about 2-3 hours in the smoker, and then finish in the oven.  Apple wood is my preferred wood chip since it is sweet and mild.  Mesquite is a really hearty and strong smoke and I find it over powering for bacon, better suited for a grilled steak.  Hickory is a favorite smoke for bacon, and cherry or other fruit woods are good, too.

What kind of smoker?

I use a Little Chief smoker.  I created an insulation blanket out of HVAC insulation to boost the heat a bit because it never really gets warm enough for me to completely finish my meat to temperature.  Because of this, I first smoke my meats and then finish them in a low oven.  If you don’t have a smoker, you’ll miss out on a bit of the flavor, but the oven works just fine and you still have a great cured meat to enjoy.  A Google search can provide many ideas on how you can smoke meat in your oven, which might work if you have really great ventilation in your kitchen.

Now go get busy Makin' Bacon! 

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Salmon Mousse


Halloween is always a fun time to play with your food.  This year I was able to get a cute little brain mold which was perfect for Salmon Mousse.

Salmon Mousse sounds fancy, but I promise it is so easy a zombie could do it.  It is a great appetizer for your holiday parties or a cool and refreshing meal on a weeknight.  We like to use it to top cucumber slices, but crackers would work great, too.  It is quite rich and small individual servings would make a fantastic appetizer for a dinner party.

The original recipe called for fresh cooked salmon and fresh herbs, but I have found canned salmon and dried herbs to be a very tasty and more wallet-friendly version.  I can only imagine that smoked salmon would be quite delightful! 

Salmon Mousse

1 envelope unflavored gelatin
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 shallot, quartered
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp kosher flake salt
2 tsp dried dill weed
2 tsp dried chives
1 14oz can salmon, drained
1 cup cream

Place gelatin, lemon juice, shallot and boiling water in bowl of food processor with ‘S’ blade and whirl for about 1 minute.  Add all remaining ingredients, except cream, and blend for an additional minute.  Slowly pour in cream, with machine running, until combined.  Pour into a 4 cup mold or serving dish, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 5 hours, preferably overnight.  To unmold, dip dish into warm water for 30 seconds, and invert onto serving plate.  Garnish as desired.

Zombies don’t ask a lot of questions, but you might have some...

What size shallot should I use?

About the size of a jumbo egg should work.  If you don’t have shallots or access to them, a thick slice of onion would work just as well in the recipe.

Is that fresh or bottled lemon juice?
Either is just fine!  I normally use bottled because it is handy and I forget to buy lemons.  If I had a fresh lemon handy, I think I would add a bit of the zest finely grated, too.

Do I need to use smoked paprika?
You can use regular sweet paprika if you would like, or none at all.  I like the little hint of smokiness that comes through with the smoked paprika, it just adds a nice depth to the flavor.  A 1/4 tsp of liquid smoke would add a nice little boost also.

If I am using fresh herbs, how much would I use?
About 1 Tbsp fresh chopped dill and 1 Tbsp fresh chopped chives.  I don’t always remember to put in the chives and the mousse still turns out great.  Green onions would work fine in place of the chives...  work with what you have on hand.

Do I need to pick out the bones and skin from the canned salmon?
Nope!  That’s the easiest part, just drain off the liquid and dump the can into the food processor.  The bones and skin breakdown in the time spent whirling around in the food processor and all those healthy vitamins, minerals and fats keep our brains running great, just in case we need to out-think a zombie.  If you are using fresh cooked or smoked salmon, you will want to make sure the bones are removed.

What type of cream?
ANY!  I use heavy whipping cream, but half and half would work well, too.  The notes with the original recipe state that 2 percent milk is fine, but why miss out on the decadence and richness of good cream!

How do I invert the mold?
After a quick dip in warm water to loosen the mousse, place a plate on top of the mold, face down.  Grab both the plate and the mold together and flip.  You might have to give the mold a couple of sharp raps with your fist to get it to release, or it may just slide out perfectly.  The other option is to serve the mousse out of a serving dish that you don’t have to unmold at all.

A sprinkling of fresh chopped parsley or chives... a dusting of paprika...  those little finishing touches can really make things fancy.  You know your zombie guests will appreciate fancy brains!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Chicken Cacciatore

When you know you are going to be gone all day and want to come home to a hearty warm meal, chicken cacciatore is perfect for the slow cooker.  You can throw it together the night before and then start it cooking as you head out the door in the morning.

For the most part, I think cooking with fresh ingredients is always best, but occasionally there are benefits in using dried ingredients.  When I normally make this recipe, I use only dried vegetables.  When I wanted to make this batch, all I had was fresh.  The big difference was the amount of liquid that resulted in using the fresh versus dried.  This recipe is still hugely flavorful with fresh, but the sauce is a little thinner.  The chicken releases a lot of broth and the dried vegetables soak it up, keeping the sauce thick.  With the fresh vegetables, extra moisture is released as they cook which makes for a thinner sauce.  Both taste excellent, it is just a matter of preference.

The other benefit to using the dried vegetables is that I can mix up little packages ahead of time and just pull one from the cupboard when I want to pull this slow cooker meal together.  When you go to the effort to measure out the ingredients for one recipe, it can be of benefit to take an extra moment and measure out a few ready-made packets to save time later.

Listed below are the two versions, one with fresh ingredients and one with the dried ingredients.

Chicken Cacciatore

Ingredients - fresh
1 whole chicken, cut into serving pieces
1 large onion, thinly sliced
8 oz mushrooms, quartered
1 red or green bell pepper, diced
2 stalks celery, chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup kalamata olives, rough chop
2 Tbsp capers
1 6oz can tomato paste
1 28oz can diced tomatoes
1 Tbsp Italian Herb Seasoning
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp kosher salt
2 bay leaves

Place chicken pieces in bottom of slow cooker.   Combine onion, bell pepper, celery, garlic, olives and capers and distribute over chicken.  Mix together tomato paste, diced tomatoes, Italian herb seasoning, crushed red peppers, vinegar, salt and pepper.  Pour over vegetables and chicken.  Tuck in 2 bay leaves.  Cook on low 6-8 hours, high 4-6.  Garnish with fresh grated parmesan and serve.

Ingredients - make ahead packets (preferred recipe)
1/3 cup dried minced onion
1 cup dried mushroom pieces
1 Tbsp dried minced garlic
2 Tbsp dried celery
1/4 cup dried red/green bell pepper
1 Tbsp Italian Herb Seasoning
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
1 tsp ground black pepper
2 tsp kosher salt
2 bay leaves

Add to:
1 whole chicken, cut into serving pieces
1 6oz can tomato paste
1 28oz can diced tomatoes
1/2 cup kalamata olives, rough chop
2 Tbsp capers
2 Tbsp red wine vinegar

Make as many seasoning packets as desired, store in a cool, dry, dark place until ready to use.  Place chicken pieces in bottom of slow cooker.   Mix together tomato paste, diced tomatoes, olives, capers  and vinegar.  Add seasoning packet to tomato mixture and mix well.  Pour over chicken, cook on low 6-8 hours, high 4-6.  Garnish with fresh grated parmesan and serve.

Who has questions?

Do I have to use a whole chicken in pieces?
Feel free to use whatever chicken pieces you would prefer, you’ll need about 3-4 pounds of pieces.  I prefer to use bone in pieces because the meat is more flavorful when cooked on the bone and you get some of those good minerals and whatnots from the bones in your sauce.  If you prefer boneless, skinless chicken breasts, go for it.  You can use whole chicken thighs or drumsticks or whatever pieces you have handy.

Why do I have to mix the cans of tomatoes together?  Can’t I just dump it in?
The tomato paste is what provides the deep tomato flavor in this recipe without excessive moisture.  It is super thick and because of that, needs to be thinned down by the liquid from the diced tomatoes so that its loveliness can be shared equally.

I like the idea of having packets ready to go in the cupboard.  Where can I find the ingredients to make them?
I have found everything but the dried mushrooms at Penzeys Spices.  The dried mushrooms I have found at Costco, some higher-end markets, the farmer’s market, and Amazon.  You can even dry your own with a food dehydrator.  Remember that different mushrooms have different flavors, for example, dried shitake mushrooms can add an Asian flavor.  Look for dried white mushrooms, or dried portabella, or a mix.

I'm going to be gone longer than the recipe cooks for, what can I do?
I normally make this recipe up the night before and stash it in the fridge.  This slows down the cooking by 1-2 hours on high and 2-3 hours on low.

I don't have to brown the meat?
Browning is optional, but it does add another dimension to the finished dish.  If you are going to be making this the night ahead, do not brown your chicken.  Partially cooked meat is a safety concern.  If you do decide to brown your meat, make sure you are proceeding with the slow cooker straight away to finish the cooking.

Can I use other olives?
Sure, use whatever type of olives you like or a mixture.  I have seen recipes that call for green olives and recipes that call for no olives (how horrid! Gasp!)  If you prefer the black olives from a can that fit perfectly on finger tips, use those.  The green and kalamata olives add a certain depth from their pickled flavor, the same way the capers add a little something special.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Pancetta Wrapped Stuffed Pork Loin

By now, you know I'm proud to be what I consider a lazy cook.  I prefer simple and tasty meals over those that take a lot of time and fussing.  Every once in a while, though, I get the itch to put on my fancy pants and bust out something glorious.

I started my journey into charcuterie this year and made pancetta.  For those of you unfamiliar with pancetta, it is commonly described as Italian bacon.  This comparison is sadly lacking as pancetta is all the glory of bacon, but so much more complex and wonderful!  It is flavored with garlic, juniper, black pepper and thyme, allowed to cure in a dry rub for a few days, then rolled, tied, and hung up to air dry for several weeks.  It develops a deep flavor that only fermented meats, like salami and such, can claim.

Pancetta’s Italian origins were the inspiration for the filling of the stuffed pork loin.  Instead of making an actual pesto and dirtying a dish (I’m still lazy even when I have my fancy pants on), I left the ingredients in rough form. 

Despite there being a lot of steps to making this stuffed pork loin, they are all simple.  If you can play whack-a-mole, you can flatten the loin.  If you can chop some basil and nuts, you can create the filling.  If you can roll up a swim towel, you can roll the loin.  If you can tie your shoes, you can tie up the loin.

Pancetta Wrapped Stuffed Pork Loin

3-4lb pork loin
1 lb pancetta
4 cloves garlic, minced
Handful of fresh basil,
Handful of pitted Kalamata
     olives, chopped
1 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
1 cup mayonnaise
2-3 oz parmesan, grated
1 tsp aleppo pepper
Fresh ground pepper

Butterfly and flatten pork loin to 3/4 inch thick.  On a piece of waxed paper or parchment, place 5-6 long pieces of butcher twine.  Next, lay slices of pancetta to the width of your pork loin on top of the strings, overlapping to form a solid sheet.  Lay pork loin on top of pancetta sheet, with fat cap face down, farthest from you.  Rub minced garlic and a light dusting of fresh ground pepper evenly across loin.  Spread mayonnaise evenly to 1 inch from the edges and 2 inches from the top and bottom  Evenly distribute kalamata olives, basil, walnuts, parmesan and aleppo pepper on the mayonnaise.  Using the waxed paper to get you started, begin rolling the loin snugly, being careful to keep the strings out of the rolling process.  Once rolled, tie loin with butcher twine, starting in the middle and working your way to the ends.  Place on a baking rack.  Bake at 450 degrees for 20 minutes.  Crack oven door and set temperature to 325 degrees, closing door when oven begins heating again.  Roast at 325 degrees for approximately 30 minutes a pound, until internal temperature reaches 145 degrees.  Check temperature at 1 hour and adjust time from there.   Once done, remove from oven, tent with foil and allow to rest for 15 minutes.  Remove twine and carefully slice into medallions for serving.  Gracefully accept ooohs and awes from your family and friends.

And now some Q&A...

What do you mean to butterfly the pork loin?
Carefully slice through the middle of your pork loin to about 1 inch from the other side, like you are making it a book.  Loins tend to be more of an oval than a round.  Make this cut through the “tall” part of the oval.  Make one initial and confident cut, and then follow up with several shallower and gentler slices until you are one inch from cutting all the way through.

How do I flatten the pork loin?
Lay down several layers of plastic wrap, overlapping as needed to accommodate the size of your pork piece.  Place the pork on top and then cover with a few more layers of plastic wrap.  The trick to laying the plastic wrap on the counter without battling the cling, is to gently wipe the counter with a slightly damp sponge or towel.  Place the box of wrap at the edge of the counter closest to you, and pull it out away from you, allowing the moisture to catch the wrap.  I promise the plastic wrap struggles will most likely be the greatest frustration of making this meal.

Once encased in plastic wrap blanket, take something heavy and gently pound the pork loin.  You’ll want to use the smooth side of a kitchen mallet, not the sides used for tenderizing.  If you don’t have a kitchen mallet, try a small frying pan, rolling pin, a can of tomatoes, brick wrapped in several layers of plastic wrap, anything that is clean, heavy, and sturdy.  Start gently till you get the feel for the process, too strong of a whack and you might create a blowout and a hole. 

What length should I cut the twine?
About 18-24 inches so that you have plenty to tie the rolled loin with.  Too short and it can be hard to tie.  Too long and all you have to do is trim any excess once tied.  Error on the side of too much.

I can’t find pancetta, can I use bacon?
Of course!  The spiral shape of pancetta is lovely and helps to form an even sheet that won’t slide about like strips of bacon would.  If you are using bacon, I would advise weaving your strips together so that they form one cohesive sheet.  If you just aren’t into the idea of playing bacon weaver, make sure to lay your strips perpendicular to the strings so they will all be secure when rolled and tied.

Why do I have to put the fat cap away from me?
When you finish rolling, the portion that is farthest from you will be the top of your rolled loin.  You want to keep the fat cap on top so that it can baste the meat as it roasts.  If it were on the bottom, all that lovely juiciness would just be in the bottom of the pan and your meat will miss out on the extra moisture that it provides... you want succulent meat!

What’s with the mayonnaise?
Pork loin is an incredibly lean cut of meat.  The mayonnaise helps to keep the meat moist, as it is mostly made of oil.  It also helps to glue the ingredients together so they don’t slide around when you are rolling.  You want to keep it about an inch from the edges and two inches from the top and bottom.  As you roll, the filling will squish out to fill the empty space.  If you spread to the edges, your filling will squish out from your roll and you’ll lose all your tasty work! 

Hey, you didn’t mention salt!  You always mention salt!  Why no salt?
The pancetta  has plenty of salt for this recipe.  Along with the parmesan cheese in the filling and the kalamata olives, there is no need to for anything more than a few grinds of black pepper.

How much is a handful of basil?  Can I use dried?
Um, well... about one basil plant from Trader Joes.  Maybe one packed cup, not too tight, not too loose.  Dried basil isn’t going to have that pesto flavor.  Basil is one herb that really changes its flavor when dried.  If it is all you have, go for it, better to cook than not too cook, but the flavor won’t be the same.

What is chiffonade of basil?
It’s a fancy French word for thin slices.  You can just as easily chop the basil, but it bruises easily.  The bruising doesn’t really matter since it will be cooked inside the rolled meat, but this is an opportunity to practice a new technique.  Take the whole leaves of basil and make a stack, starting with the bigger leaves on the bottom.  Gently roll the leaves lengthwise and gently draw the blade of a sharp knife across the leaves to slice.  Pressing down will cause the bruising, which turns dark.  Again, perfection doesn’t matter here, but I don’t like to miss an opportunity to practice good techniques for when it does matter.

How do I toast the walnuts?  Can I use pine nuts instead?
I do mine in the toaster oven.  I set the oven to about 350-400 degrees; spread them evenly on the baking sheet lined with foil, and toast for about 3-5 minutes.  As soon as you can smell them, pull them and toss them into a cool bowl to stop the toasting.  You can always add more time, you can’t salvage burnt nuts.  No one likes burnt nuts.  You can also toast them in a skillet over medium high heat, but because of the nooks and crannies of walnuts, only the peaks get toasted and the valleys miss out.  Pine nuts work great also, they are just more expensive.

Do I have to use pesto flavors?
Nope, you can use whatever flavors you would like, just make sure your pieces of ingredients are chopped fine enough to be easily rolled.  Another idea is thyme or sage with finely diced apples and toasted pecans.  Gorgonzola, pecans and cranberries would be lovely.  Keep the mayonnaise, though, for the moisture and binding of the stuffing ingredients.  If you would prefer, you can mix all the filling ingredients together in a bowl and then spread it evenly, it just makes another dish to wash if you do.

How do I roll this thing?
Lift up the edge of the waxed paper closest to you and start rolling the loin into itself and away from you.  As your roll takes form, make sure to keep the strings free and peel back the waxed paper as you go so it doesn’t get caught either.  Don’t wrap so tightly that you squeeze the filling out, but not so loosely that it doesn’t look like a roll.  Go slowly; be gentle and patient with yourself and the pork loin.  When you get almost to the end, reverse and roll the top toward you.  This has your roast finishing with the top on top and ready to tie. 

I just tie it up?
Your twine pieces should be evenly spaced still, but if not, give them a little adjustment.  Start tying in the center and work your way out, this assures that the roll is even without bulges in the middle.  This is the one step you might want to call in an extra set of hands for.  It is by no means necessary, but it might make someone feel important if they get to help you :) Tie the knots just tight enough to keep the roll in its form, but not so tight that you squish out the filling.  Trim the excess twine.

Do I have to use a baking rack?
Of course not, but it assures that the pancetta becomes crispy all around.  Without the rack the bottom won’t crisp up, but it will still be YUMYY!

What’s with the two oven temperatures?
Old family secret!  It sears the outside with the initial high temperature, creating a lovely crust (crispy pancetta in this case) and allows for the benefits of slow roasted meat, which is more succulent.  After the initial blast at 450 degrees for 20 minutes, pop the door open for 5 minutes or so until the temperature comes down to 325 degrees. 

At 30 minutes a pound, a 3 pound loin would take an hour and 30 minutes, but you say to check at 1 hour, why is that?
Every piece of meat cooks a little different.  The time and oven temperature are just a guideline and a thermometer is the only true way to know if your meat is done, or overdone.  I prefer to check at 1 hour so I can avoid all possibilities of over cooked meat (nasty!).  Every oven is different, as well, so what works in my oven may be different in yours.   Checking at one hour also gives you an opportunity to lay a piece of foil over the top if it is looking like it might burn.  If you do need to use foil, don’t wrap it tightly as this will create steam and ruin your crispy exterior, simply lay it on the top.

How do I slice this lovely after it has finished resting?
Using a very sharp knife, pull across the crispy pancetta and loin to slice it.  Pressing down with a knife will crumble all your lovely crispiness and mush the lovely spiral shape.  Carefully move from cutting board to serving dish or plates and enjoy!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Stuffed Jalapenos

I’m a lazy cook.  I’ll admit it... and I’m kind of proud of it.  There is something very satisfying about making delicious food that doesn’t take much effort!

One of my favorite lazy snacks and side dishes is stuffed jalapenos.  The simplicity of a couple of ingredients and a few minutes in the oven can’t be beat.  It’s perfect for an after-school snack, football season munchies, or a party appetizer. 

Stuffed Jalapenos

Cream Cheese, or other soft cheese
Seasoning of choice

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Slice the stem portions from the top of the jalapenos, leaving as much of the pepper as possible.  Slice jalapenos in half lengthwise.  Remove seeds and veins from the inside of the peppers.  Slice off a small bit of cream cheese and smooth into the hollow of the jalapeno.  Continue with all peppers until complete, placing on a baking sheet or pan as you go.  Sprinkle packed peppers with salt and pepper, or seasoning of choice.  Place in oven and turn oven setting to broil.  Set timer for 8 minutes and check to see how jalapenos look.  They should be soft and very lightly browned on top when done.

Requests for information (aka Questions)....

How do I keep the pepper juice from burning my hands and eyes?

Well, to keep it from burning your eyes, keep your fingers out of your eyes!!!  Seriously, pepper juice can be really painful in your eyes.  If it does happen, milk on a cotton ball is going to be your best bet for relief.  To keep it from burning your hands, coat your hands very lightly with oil to act as a barrier, but be more aware when using the knife after you do.  You can also wear gloves.  Or you can just enjoy the burn and go for it without any sort of barrier.

How do I remove the seeds and veins?

The seeds and veins are where the heat is in the pepper, and unless you really don’t like who you are feeding, you will want to take them out.  I found that a cheap, metal measuring spoon works best for this.  The metal is thin and acts almost like a blade and the shape is perfect for quickly evacuating those bits from the jalapenos.  

How much cream cheese?  How many jalapenos?

When doing your shopping, plan on 1 ounce per whole jalapeno.  Jalapenos come in lots of different sizes, so it can be hard to calculate.  1 8oz package of cream cheese will stuff about 8-10 peppers, even more if you mix things in with your cream cheese.  Calculating the number of jalapenos can be more challenging.  A room full of men watching football can pack dozens of these away in a matter of minutes!  As a side dish, I figure 2-3 peppers per person, which makes 4-6 stuffed halves.  

What seasonings do you use?
It depends on which way the wind is blowing... I’m finicky that way!  I do season liberally with salt; it helps to bring up the flavors.  Other than that, it really just depends on what is within reach:  smoked paprika, aleppo pepper, cumin, smoked salt, chili powder, Mexican oregano, seasoned salt, crushed red pepper flakes, Penzeys Forward, toasted onion powder, garlic powder, Adobo seasoning, BBQ rub, etc.  Simply sprinkle a nice dusting on the top of your stuffed peppers.  You can also mix things into the cream cheese like shredded cheddar cheese, crumbled bacon, diced pepperoni, minced onion, left over shredded chicken, chopped black olives... you get the idea.  A handful (about 1/2 cup), seems to be the right amount to mix in for 8 oz of cream cheese.

Can I make these ahead of time?
Absolutely!  You can make these a day in advance and stash them in the fridge until you are ready to cook.  Give them 15-30 minutes to warm up on the counter before you stick them in the oven.  You can easily take them over to your friend’s house and cook them up there, too!

Hey!  What about bacon?!?!?
Wrapping the jalapenos in bacon is an EXCELLENT idea, unless you are cooking for vegans, they kind of frown on the whole bacon love.  If you want to wrap your jalapenos with bacon, you need to partially cook the bacon to assure that it crisps up nicely in the short oven time.  Cook those lovely strips for a few minutes, making sure they are still wiggly and flexible so you can wrap them.  Let the slices cool a bit so you can handle them without burning yourself, then wrap them around your stuffed peppers and proceed with broiling them in the oven.  If you cook the bacon too long and it is crispy, you won’t be able to wrap, but you can still garnish with lovely bacon bits! 
Happy Cooking!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Slow Cooker Pork Loin

When it comes to basic cooking techniques, nothing is easier than dumping food in a slow cooker, turning it on and coming back hours later to dinner!  Yes, it really is that easy and it truly maximizes your lazy time.

This is a long post, so bear with me... If you are new to slow cooking, there are a few things to take into consideration when embarking on this lazy cooking technique.  None of it is difficult, but I want to set you up for success!

Yes, it is clean!
30 years of love takes a toll!
Slow cooker is the type of device, Crock-Pot is a brand.  Not that this has anything to do with actually cooking a meal, I just thought it was an interesting fact.  You can find slow cookers in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors, from 1 Qt (4 cups) to 9 Qt (36 cups), footballs, hearts, pumpkins, square, industrial design, country kitchen design and any color of the rainbow.  Somewhere between 3 Qt and 6 Qt is most practical, it just depends on how much you want to cook at once.

Different sizes, makes and models cook at different temperatures and speeds; newer models of slow cookers cook a hotter and faster than older versions.  Recipes may need to have the time adjusted based on these differences.  You need to get to know your slow cooker, take it out for a date, get to know its likes and dislikes, really build a relationship with your tool.  This is best done on a weekend when you are home so that you can check it at the earliest finishing time.  It’s a shame to go to the effort of dumping in your ingredients, heading out for the day and coming home to an under- or over-cooked meal.  Once you get to know each other, you will have a good idea on how long you can leave your pot bubbling while you go have some fun.  

If you still have the instruction manual, read it.  If you don’t, you can likely do a quick internet search to find the company and download a copy.  It will be a dull read, not nearly as interesting as the wittiness (a-hem) of this blog.
Under-filled which resulted
in slightly dry Bavarian Pork Loin.

Use the right size cooker for the amount of food you are cooking.  Slow cookers perform best when 1/2 to 3/4 full.  Don’t under-fill or your food may over cook, don’t over fill or your food may take much longer to cook.  Keep your ingredients to within an inch from the top.  As you are getting the hang of slow cookers, an instant read thermometer is the best way to know if you have reached safe cooking temperatures for your finished foods. 

Don’t open the lid.  Don’t walk by and stir.  Set it and forget it.  Every time you open the lid, you slow down the cooking process.  When you are getting to know your cooker, it is okay to open the lid at the earliest finish time, i.e. your recipe says cook on low 4-6 hours, you can check at 4 hours to see if it has reached a safe cooking temperature.

Don’t add unnecessary liquid.  The tiniest amount of liquid is needed to properly cook vegetables and keep meat moist.  Large pieces of meat cooked on low do not require liquid.  When cooking small and/or lean meat pieces, or with high heat, using a small amount of liquid is a good idea.  Liquid does not evaporate when using a slow cooker, so use it sparingly or you run the risk of a bland, watered down meal.

Newer.  Smaller.  Faster.  Hotter!
Fresh herbs, dairy and fish don’t like the slow cooker.  They need to be added just before serving, about 15 minutes.  Fresh herbs dissipate into nothingness and their flavor components are lost during the long cooking time.  Fish easily overcooks and becomes nasty, dry and rubbery.  Dairy breaks down, separates, and curdles over the long processing time.  If these ingredients are going into your pot, add them at the end and cook just long enough to bring up to temperature, and cook through in the case of seafood.

Frozen food takes longer.  DUH!  If cooking on high, add about 2-3 hours, if cooking on low, add about 4-6 hours.  This can be used to your advantage if you are going to be gone for an extended length of time or have a busy schedule.  This is also an advantage in that you can do the prep for meals weeks in advance, freeze, and then pop out a ready to go meal on a busy morning.  Work smarter, not harder!

Vegetable layer for Fall Harvest Pork Loin
Prep and layer your ingredients according to their cook time.  Root vegetables and winter squash take longer to cook and should be in the bottom of the pot.  Whole sweet potatoes take longer to cook than pieces of sweet potato; whole chicken takes longer than bite size pieces of chicken breast.  Get the idea?  Good!

Use the refrigerator to slow the cooking time.  If you are leaving for work in the morning, but won’t be home for another 9 hours, you can slow down the cooking time by prepping your pot the night before and stowing it in the fridge till you start the cooking as you walk out the door.  With my vessels, this slows High cooking about 1-2 hours and Low cooking 2-3 hours.

Now, are you ready to get cooking?

Slow Cooker Pork Loin

Salsa Verde Pork Loin
Whole Pork Loin
Vegetables, optional
Seasonings of choice
Liquid, maybe

If using vegetables, prepare as desired and place in bottom of the crock.  Season lightly if desired.  Brown in a skillet if desired.  Place whole pork loin in crock and season as desired.  Cook on low 4-8 hours, high 3-6 hours.  Pork is done at 145 degrees.

Let’s answer some questions...

How big of a pork loin?
That depends on the size of your slow cooker.  You want it to fit without having to be forced in, but without a lot of empty space.  If your pork loin is too large for your crock, slice off a couple of pork chops and use them for another meal.  If the loin is too small, add more vegetables to fill in the space.  The pork loin to the left was too large and had to be squished into the pot, not ideal.

What kind of vegetables?
Onion, garlic, jalapeno for Salsa Verde Pork Loin
Anything you like.  Keep in mind that they will be cooking over a long period of time, so some turn to mush while others keep their texture nicely.  Root vegetables (onions, tubers) and winter squash do well and keep their shape and texture.  Fruit will break down and melt into the sauce that is created during cooking.  Summer squash, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, etc. turn to mush.  You don’t need to add vegetables to your pot if you would prefer not.

Any seasonings?
Salt and pepper is always a good place to start, but you can use anything you like.  Don’t limit yourself to dried spices.  Salsa, chutney, apple sauce and other liquid-type flavorings are great and easy!  Below are three different examples of recent pork loins that came out of the Domesticity Nouveau kitchen to get your creative juices flowing.

Do I have to brown the meat?
Browning is totally optional.  It does add another depth to the layers of flavor, but it isn’t necessary.  If you choose to do it, do not refrigerate or freeze for another time.  Browned meat needs to go directly to the slow cooker.  To brown your pork loin, heat a heavy skillet to medium-high.  Place loin in the skillet and brown 2-3 minutes per side and on the ends.  I prefer my cast iron skillet that is well seasoned, holds the heat and doesn’t require any additional oil to keep the meat from sticking.  If you are using another type of skillet, you might need to add a wee bit of oil to prevent sticking and the cold meat will likely cool the pan temperature, requiring a little longer browning time.  Meat will release easily from a pan when it has browned perfectly.  If it is sticking, you likely need to let it cook a little longer.

What do you mean “Liquid, maybe”?
If you are using something like salsa or apple sauce, you have will have plenty of liquid to keep things perfectly moist.  If you are just throwing in onions, you’ll need to add a few tablespoons.  The smaller your slow cooker, the less you will need.  Start with 1 Tbsp per quart size your cooker is, for example, if you have a 4 quart slow cooker, use 4 Tbsp (1/4 cup).  Any liquid will work:  water, orange juice, broth, etc.

High?  Low?  3-8 hours?  Can you be more specific?
Um.... not really.  This is where you need to know your beast’s temperament and calculate that with your desired meal time.  I have two slow cookers, one is old and large, the other is modern and small and they behave differently.  Yours will, too.  Different size pork loins are going to take different cooking times, too.  This vagueness is frustrating in the beginning, but after a few meals in your slow cooker, you’ll know if your pot runs hot & fast or low & slow.  As you are getting to know each other, check at the earliest finish time and move forward from there.

Can you recommend any flavor combinations?
Sure!  But don't forget the beauty of plain, it allows for changing up the flavors of leftovers with different sauces.  Here are three I recently made:

Salsa Verde Pork Loin
2 cups of tomatillo sauce I had in the freezer, one sliced onion, garlic and diced jalapeno.  I layered the vegetables on the bottom, browned the meat, then poured tomatillo sauce over the pork loin.  Cooked on low for 7 hours and served with stuffed jalapenos.

Bavarian Pork Loin
Penzeys Bavarian Seasoning, salt, pepper, sliced onion and 1/4 cup apple sauce left over from a visiting niece.  I rubbed the outside of the pork loin with Bavarian Seasoning, salt, & pepper, then placed on a bed of onions and apple sauce in the bottom of the crock.  Cooked on low 9 hours in my older Crock-pot.  There was a lot of broth created, so I poured that off and boiled it down by half to make a sauce and served with homemade sauerkraut.

Fall Harvest Pork Loin
1 small acorn squash, 1 pear, sliced shallots, pecans, a dusting of pumpkin pie spice, salt, pepper, and a dribble of water.  Peeled and chunked up an acorn squash and placed on the bottom.  Cored and sliced a pear and added to the crock along with the sliced shallots, dusting all with a bit of pumpkin pie spice, salt and pepper.  Nestled the pork loin in the vegetables and sprinkled with salt and pepper.  Stuck in the fridge overnight, then cooked on low for 9 hours.  I wish I would have put in a dribble of maple syrup!

Up next....  Stuffed Jalapenos!